Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers 1

In this post, I will focus primarily on content from Chapter 1 of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, as the subsequent three chapters failed to provide the level of stimulation and insight that I was looking for.  I could be wrong, but I found that Bulliet’s style collapsed into a scattered summary of historical events, mythology, and processes that lacked easily detectable substance.

I extracted several overarching themes from the reading. I’ll discuss two.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

Bulliet seems to suggest at times, and I too suggest, that the stunning lack of authentic concern for the treatment of animals in our society is in large part results from our tendency to be concerned with what is “right in front of us.” Psychologists use the term “salience.” For instance, in a hypothetical photo of a beach, a giraffe’s presence in the photo is more salient than a sandcastle — in this case because the inappropriateness (and size) of the giraffe makes it more salient than the sandcastle.

Many agree the rationale for vegetarianism is quite compelling, even non-vegetarians. More would agree that the systems in place for housing and slaughtering animals in the U.S. as depicted by films such as Food, Inc. are appalling. That begs the question, why are we so content eating so much meat given our knowledge of what’s going on?

I think the answer, at least in part, may be a product of salience (or lack thereof). The other answer may be desensitization, as Bulliet mentions. While the people of domesticity were numbed from overexposure to animal slaughter and sexuality, the indifference of the people of postdomesticity may be attributable to psychological distance from the processes that eventually delivery meat to our grocery stores. In other words, what’s going on in the background is not salient and is therefore mostly irrelevant. I might say there is an unconscious, but also partially deliberate, effort on the part of society to block thoughts that might lead to discomforting realizations about animals. Discomforting realities are interpreted as psychological threats and are usually rejected by our brains automatically.

SEPARATION FROM THE ENVIRONMENT

Bulliet discuss the progression from a kind of fusion with animals in predomesticity to a separation in domesticity and postdomesticity. I will take it a step further: our separation from animals is a signal of a larger separation from the environment altogether. One could argue that the humans of predomesticity were immersed in the environment, were a part of it. With domesticity, we began to “stomp on top of” the environment. We increasingly manipulated the Earth’s species and resources and came to consider ourselves as “above” nature.

Postdomesticity goes a step further. Rather than sitting on top of the environment, there is reason to believe we are removing ourselves from it altogether, physically or psychologically. Our cell phones, movies, computers, and the like seem to being tearing us from the physical world that increasingly makes us uneasy and placing us in a cyberspatial vacuum that leaves us completely unconnected to our roots in the predomestic and domestic world. Bulliet notes that our conceptions of carnal reality today are a product of images and teachings without any concrete experience. Our knowledge of the “real world” is “installed” into us instead of developed from experience. I can elaborate more in class if needed.

 

Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised as I began to read this week’s reading. I didn’t expect the topic of the book to be “blood and sex,” as it’s so often mentioned throughout the several beginning chapters. I was honestly a little taken aback as the book just jumped right in and began to discuss bestiality and it’s prevalence in previous centuries. For starters, I had no idea that it was such a normal thing in the past, and to continue, I didn’t exactly understand what the subject had to do with domestication. It seemed to me that bestiality would be more like a setback in the history of animal domestication; kind of like a mistake in the process of forging a successful, positive relationship between animals and humans. Despite my initial hesitation, I quickly began to understand the importance of the subject of “blood and sex.” It seems that it’s actually very important to understand the relationship humans have had with animals on a sexual level and also in how our view of animal slaughter has changed. As the readings progressed, I began to see the increased complications of animal/human relationships. Not only have sexual relationships towards animals developed over time, but as have our moral and religious connections to animals. As I have thought about domestication previously, I kind of imagined domestication occurring at one point and history, and after that point the relationship between humans and animals has been static and unchanging. This book has made me begin to understand that the development of the animal/human relationship takes place on so many levels, and furthermore how that relationship has been changing almost constantly with the development of society.

Although I was able to overcome my initial hesitation with the book as it started off discussing “blood and sex,” I still wasn’t entirely convinced by all of Bulliet’s points. I believe Bulliet did a good job of making the reader aware of a change in animal/human relationships developing with the changes of society, but I think there wasn’t enough exploration into those changes. I mainly got this impression from the portion on elective vegetarianism. Personally, I do not eat red meat, and I tend to avoid most meats overall, and as I read this portion of the book I began to feel somewhat ashamed. It was as if Bulliet’s message was for people to suck it up and eat meat like humans used to and are supposed to. However, Bulliet ignores the fact that our society has drastically changed from the domestic era in which most people saw many animals slaughtered during their childhood. And apparently unlike Bulliet, I don’t really feel that this is such a negative change. For example, Bulliet mentions the way that meat gives people more energy than only vegetation can. This point was brought up as if it was a case for why people are making a mistake in shying away from meat, however Bulliet never mentions that most people no longer work on farms and exert as much energy as they used to. Therefore, it seems that eating foods that give less energy really isn’t such a big deal. Unlike Bulliet, I really think that the change in the eating habits of society that have arisen from the drastic change in the activities and lifestyles of many societies overall is not a bad thing. Obviously, these thoughts are mostly focused on American society, given that many countries around the world are still primarily farming societies. But in general, I didn’t have the same negative impression of the shift towards vegetarianism. I may have interpreted this section incorrectly, and I probably simply felt this way because I felt guilty while reading this portion of the book, but I do know for sure that Bulliet was attempting to place a negative connotation on vegetarianism, which I do not agree with. The book so far has been eye-opening, but I’m not yet fully convinced by Bulliet.

Post-domesticity, and Animals’ changing Influence

Humans’ relationship with animals, both domesticated and wild, has changed over time.  According to Richard Bullliet’s idea of post-domesticity, we are living in a time where attitudes towards animals are shaped by peoples’ removal from them in their everyday life.  Bullliet argues that this change in interaction with animals has shaped our views on sex, violence, science, religion, and diet.

In Bullliet’s “domestic era” people interacted with animals often and in personal or involved ways.  Butchering one’s own animals for meat was common, as was breeding them.  In the modern post-domestic era, animal products are still produced, but in an automated and sterilized manner.  The blood, gore, and animal suffering are locked in the back room or miles away from your burger.  Without addressing moral concerns about the production of animal products, Bulliet argues that after removing ourselves from the sexual and visceral stimuli that come with frequent animal interaction, we developed fantasies to replace them.

Witnessing animal sex used to be a fairly common introduction to the idea of sex in the domestic era.  Bulliet presents evidence that regardless of the same taboos against bestiality as are present now, bestiality was likely more common in the past.  Without animals to influence sexual development and provide a release for imagination, we turned to masturbation and lurid fantasies in other mediums.  The growth of erotic material does seem to coincide with the decline of the domestic era.  Is this causation though?  The increase of literacy and general consumption of literature could explain erotic literature’s early growth.  The explosion of internet porn, so vehement that it merits its own internet rule, #34 (if it exists there is porn of it), is explainable partly as the internet allowing people with strange tastes being able to reach a larger audience.  Also responsible for this growth could be the growth in general of cultural material on the internet as it becomes easier for the average person to create a video, story, or picture and share it.

The gore of butchering animals is almost completely gone from modern life except for in connection with sports like hunting and fishing.  This removal has coincided with the growing attitude that harming animals is morally wrong or at least regrettable.  Vegetarianism and other variations of dietary restriction on meat are growing more popular, as is the revulsion at the treatment of food animals in factory farms.  Portrayals of animals in media are commonly anthropomorphized, especially in children’s media.  This has caused us to care for animals in an abstract sense as something approaching third class citizens.  In post-industrial governments animals have some limited rights.  Curiously, animal-on-animal violence is not viewed with revulsion like human-on-animal violence.  Seen as a natural act or part of the “circle of life”, people don’t demonize animal-on-animal violence or seek to change it.  Hunting sports are sometimes seen as “barbaric” or primitive, but are also praised as being “manly” or in some other way a rite of passage.

In regards to science, Bullier argues that while the “natural” selective breeding of animals to mold them to our purpose was a welcome and accepted advance, modern methods of altering animals, drugs and genetics, are met with skepticism and fear.  While people are right to be wary of the unintended side effects of new technology, the response to genetic engineering of animals is particularly strong.  One possible reason for this is the fear that the techniques developed will be turned on us.  Others hope for this, strongly advocating genetic manipulation as a way to not only increase food supply, but cure diseases or improve quality and quantity of life.  In the post-domestic era, our strong feelings for animals as something like third class citizens makes us pause at the idea of changing these animals genetic identity.  Do we have the right to go beyond artificial selection and deliberately engineer new species?

In the considering of non-human rights, the issues of whether animals have some level of self-awareness and a concept of suffering are extremely relevant.  Religions weigh in differently on this issue, with some interpreting the Christian duty to be stewards of Earth as a blank check to do as we please, while others see it as a commandment to tread as lightly as possible on the environment.  Buddhism and Jainism condemn the eating of animals to varying degrees as immorally causing suffering.

The changing relationships between Humans and non-humans involves controversial issues such as non-human rights, genetic engineering, and hunting.  How our attitudes towards these issues evolve will determine how strongly a “post-domestic” culture will develop.